Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra beer, has blasted the Conservative party for pandering to Ukip’s “toxic xenophobia” with its policy on international students.
The crossbench peer singled out Home Secretary Theresa May for specific criticism, while also savaging Ed Miliband for his “staggering” lack of business credentials.
He was delivering a speech on international students for London Metropolitan University and said the Coalition’s immigration policy had made “young people coming to our shores to seek opportunity feel like criminals seeking to cross our borders”. Lord Bilimoria, who came to the UK from India as an international student himself, said next week’s election represented an undesirable choice between a damaging Conservative immigration policy or a Labour party that did not understand business.
“It’s my belief that our nation is standing today at the most crucial crossroads that our long walk of progress has seen in many years. In the wake of the worst recession for a century, times have been hard and the impulse of some has been to lay the blame at our immigrants.
“In the election ahead of us, we face a choice in which the progress we’ve made is put at risk – however we choose to vote. In Ed Miliband, we face someone who displays a staggering ignorance of business, putting us in danger of appalling economic regression... On the other hand, we’re faced by Theresa May, the Conservative Home Secretary ,who is dancing to Ukip’s toxic tune on the issue of immigration.”
He said the current government had delivered a “devastatingly regressive set of immigration policies – policies whose only possible outcome is the long-term erosion of our economy and our education system”. Britain could choose to see itself as an island nation surrounded by seas that act as a “wall keeping foreigners from these shores”, or as a “vista on the world”, he concluded.
Ms May had refused to listen to evidence, advice or warnings about the issue of international students, he said. “She has got blinkers on. She does not want to listen; she will not listen.”
He argued the Tory minister had led the Coalition’s “war on migrant students” and had fallen victim to the same temptations she warned her party about as Conservative chairman with her ‘Nasty Party’ speech: “The Home Secretary has proven she is willing not only to ignore the public, but to endanger the future prosperity of our country for the chance to posture to the far right. If that isn’t nasty, I don’t know what is.”
Britain needed to reject the worldview of Ukip or face a future of “regression”, the peer warned.
“I see a Britain that is perhaps closer than it has ever been to turning away from its long tradition of progress; a Britain that seems ever more tempted to choose the path of regression and isolation...
“For our universities, our international students, our immigrants, and for the very definition of Britishness, the ideology peddled by Mr Farage’s party is a terrible threat. Do not be fooled by those who tell you that Ukip’s is an ideology of reasoned euroscepticism... They are a party of toxic xenophobia... Put simply, they are the enemies of progress.”
As an example of the benefits of Britain’s openness, Lord Bilimoria pointed to two neighbouring blue plaques on the same London street commemorating the residences of Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel. “Both chose the UK as their home, and both left it a place that would have been less British without them,” he said.
Criticising the “arbitrary and economically illiterate” Conservative target to reduce net migration to less than 100,000, Lord Bilimoria warned that the UK was “falling behind” international competitors in attracting top overseas students. “Students from the world’s emerging economies are increasingly looking at Britain and finding the doors seem to be shut,” he said.
Rather than clamping down on the numbers of international students, he called for a target to increase the number by 5% each year – and extra incentives to encourage graduates to remain in the country. He also took aim at the Coalition’s decision to scrap the post-study work visa, a system which he said was “win-win” for Britain, the students, and their nations of origin. “Theresa May and Nigel Farage are completely out of tune with what the majority of the British public want,” he added.
Taking questions after the speech, Lord Bilimoria expressed exasperation about the tenor of the election campaigns.
“If you look at this campaign which is going on at the moment, it is a very negative campaign. It’s all about the Labour party being incompetent when it comes to business... and it’s going to have the largest number of seats and therefore will have SNP support. The SNP who are bordering on Communist-Marxist, even more left-wing... They’ve got policies like wanting to get rid of our nuclear deterrent, wanting to bring in higher taxes, wanting to increase spending by £140bn extra and you go on. You’ve got from a business point of view a nightmare scenario – it’s all negative.
He also criticised the attempts to paint the Tories as the “party of the bosses”: “This is rhetoric which is out of date. Communism has failed.”